“But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” 1 John 3:17
The political, economic, and social turmoil of American society today has caused a long overdue uprising of Christians demanding justice, human rights, and environmental preservation for all of God’s children, regardless of their race, gender, physical ability, age, geographical location, nation of origin, income, and yes, religion. Rightly so. America is a nation founded on the genocide of Indians, built up by slave labor, and more willing to throw a black marijuana smoker in jail than to jail a corporate white-collar CEO who has made millions off of deceptive mortgage practices that domino into hundreds of thousands of evictions and bankruptcies.
The American dream which posits that one can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and accomplish anything if they work hard enough has become a fantastical illusion. Inequitable distribution of wealth and increased corporate power serve as an insurance policy for the wealthiest families in America to continue to recycle opportunity within their posterity rather than to equitably share the benefits of financial success with all whose labor enabled that wealth to accrue. The occasional rags-to-riches success story offers a glimmer of hope just bright enough for some, but the raw truth is that an American born at the bottom of the economic ladder has about an 8 percent chance of rising to the top of it, making America one of the hardest industrial countries to achieve economic mobility. Additionally, within the slim 8 percent chance of economic mobility there are strong geographic fluctuations, with indicators such as quality of schools, the degree of racial segregation, and the number of parents present in a home determining if youth have a higher chance of achieving an increased economic capacity than they were born into. Communities of color that have been affected by a legacy of voter repression, deceptive zoning and land use practices, Jim Crow laws, disproportionate incarceration, and both conscious and unconscious racism endure the worst effects of wealth disparity and unsustainable consumerism in America, and low-income communities often experience environmental injustices that they are told they must shoulder if they want jobs to feed their families.
Living in a society centered in white supremacy and corporate personhood creates different challenges for folks, and the degree to which the challenges vary and intensify is not uniform across demographics. As a Christian, I wake up every morning and go to bed every night praying, “Lord, what would you do? Please use me to do your work.” And every morning and every night God responds, “I have already told you what I would do. Go do it.” The Bible has given us the ultimate example, a pinnacle of good that none of us could ever live up to, but how many of us, including myself, are willing to make the sacrifices it takes to truly walk in the steps of Jesus?
“Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth” 1 Corinthians 10:24. I live a middle class lifestyle, with very few cares for material belongings but a strong affinity for good food and travel. While my heart breaks for the homeless, the immigrant community, the refugees, I often feel overloaded by the injustices of the times and do not fully engage in my neighbors’ suffering in the ways that Christ did, and has compelled us all to do. But I am trying to do better. Jesus reminds us that good intentions and well-wishes for those who are in need are useless unless we are putting these intentions into action in our community when He says, “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” James 2:15-16.
The self-identified “Christian right” politicians that revoke the right to essential healthcare for the most vulnerable members of society should have every Christian in America in an outrage. Ironically, many of these Republican Congresspersons represent the states that rely the most heavily on federal aid such as Medicare (i.e. Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, South Dakota, Mississippi, Florida, Missouri), and still they voted on May 4, 2017 for an $880 reduction in Medicaid and the ability to opt-out of covering pre-existing conditions such as c-section, diabetes, cancer, and sexual assault. But the political disconnect between Jesus’ example does not end there.
On May 4, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty”. Although this EO is virtually meaningless in terms of its practical application, it provides additional testament to the President’s position (as evidenced by his previous EOs which have been blocked by the judicial system) that church and state are intertwined. This position not only contravenes the First Amendment of America’s Constitution, but it also contravenes the separation of church and state that Jesus Christ directs Christians to observe. In John 18:36 Jesus informs that His kingdom is “not of this world” and in Matthew 22:15-22 He directs the Pharisees, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Thus, Jesus instructs His followers that this Earthly plane is not the plane of the Heavenly, and the institutions and ruling power that govern this Earth are separate from the power that governs Heaven. These two ruling authorities, the faith based trinity that Christians abide by and the governmental structure of society, are not to be tied to one another. Jesus has instructed a separation of church and state, and the Constitution that governs the United States also provides legal foundation for this separation.
In an American society where there is so much need, and with a Presidential administration fully dedicated to “othering” and ostracizing our most vulnerable populations, it is high time that Christians start analyzing our hypocrisy. We must strive to put our privileges, all of them, where our values lie. The privileges we enjoy are not uniform- the gifts God has given each of us are diverse as the sand on the shore- but in writing this piece I wanted to place a call to those of us that have financial privilege specifically.
When I say “financial privilege” I am not speaking of financial wealth. I am speaking of those of us who have a choice of whether to buy our clothes new or used, who go out to eat instead of making more cost-effective meals at home, who heat our houses a couple degrees warmer than we need to just to have an extra cozy layer of comfort. Are we truly challenging ourselves to live as Jesus did? When we give, do we give out of our excess or do we give out of what we would normally keep for ourselves? Mark 12:41-44 tells us of Jesus’ appreciation for the widow who gave “all she had”, but how many of us internalize this story and have enough faith in it to model the widow’s actions? I know I don’t, even as I work every day to be a better Christian and member of the community. But, each day I do a little better than the day before, and that’s a start.
For many (not all) Christians in America, every dollar we spend is a choice and is a proactive support or denial of the product or service we are paying for. So challenge yourself to be socially and politically aware not just in your giving, but in your spending. Similarly to the irony of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps being made in China, how ironic that we Christians send missionaries to preach the gospel in countries where American corporations are exploiting land, resources, and labor to provide us cheap clothes, technology, and other goods. With each purchase we make we are empowering the root of the purchase financially- we must take responsibility for that. Amnesty International’s recent piece on cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo has created an international uproar, showcasing coverage of children young as 7 who face physical abuse, slave working conditions, and exposure to toxic substances as a result of developed nations thirst for the technology it provides. When Christians read this type of journalism, we are compelled to analyze our contributions to these injustices. Analyzing our own materialism and values can provide a pathway for better consumer choices, but it can also provide a pathway for demanding institutional change and legal protections of the vulnerable. Like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, once we are enlightened we must never go back to the dark, but move forward with our newfound epiphanies, making best efforts to channel the example and likeness of Jesus every step of the way.
Additionally, when Christians charitably give, grassroots organizations should be at the top of our list. Grassroots organizations work directly with their base- the impacted community. By focusing charitable giving on grassroots organizations that serve communities of color and low income we are increasing the political power and base-building strength of these communities. Grassroots organizations are often engaged in underpaid, understaffed work that lacks the resources needed to strategically compete for political and social power in our Nation. Grassroots organizations allow communities to be self-empowered, rather than be subject to the campaign strategy of a top-down mainstream non-profit. Right now grassroots organizations need our financial support in ways that can never be overstated, and those of us who have financial privilege are being called to make ourselves financially uncomfortable to support them. Money is power in America, and every dollar we spend should be a conscious decision. Jesus, who walked with sinners and honored the poor, is God’s ultimate guidepost for our actions- would He be proud of the Christians in America if he saw us right now?